The brick of banknotes was nine inches thick, delicately wrapped in the finest hand-made paper. Bowing deeply and with profuse expressions of thanks, the small-town politician presented it to the frowning retainer. Once the business was completed, he was led to the back of the big house for an audience with the real recipient of the cash - his town's patron, Mr Big himself.
The scene, described by the mayor of a small city in central Japan, is familiar from a hundred Japanese movies. But in this case there was a difference. For this Mr Big was not a gang chief or corrupt politician trading favours for cash, but the late Prince Takamatsu, a member of the imperial family and an uncle of the Emperor. The contents of the mayor's parcel, and his annual visits to the prince's Tokyo residence, have publicly embarrassed Japan's reclusive imperial family.
The scandal has innocent origins. Every year Otsu, a humble lakeside city near Kyoto, holds a bicycle race, the Takamatsu Cup. The prince, a keen sportsman who died of cancer in 1987, attended regularly as a young man. The six-day race brings crowds of visitors to Otsu, and 32bn yen (pounds 200m) in bets. But the bookies have not been the only beneficiaries. Since 1950, Otsu has been paying the Takamatsu family large sums of money simply for the use of its name. In 1978 the "gratitude money" amounted to 500,000 yen (pounds 3,150 at today's rates). But last year, the prince's widow received 10m yen (pounds 63,000). "We wanted to give a respectable gift," the embarrassed mayor explained, "the kind of sum that wouldn't appear discourteous.'' Records for the first 20 years of the race are lost, but since 1971 the city's courtesy to the Takamatsu family has amounted to 122m yen (pounds 766,000).
The arrangement, unknown to all but a few city officials, was uncovered by a Communist member of Otsu council, and the scandal quickly spread. Potentially, this was more than an embarrassment. Apart from the shady details about wads of bank notes and the secret hand-overs, the affair raised serious legal questions. Article 8 of Japan's constitution states: "No property can be given to, or received by, the Imperial House", and the Imperial House Economy Law requires permission from the Diet for gifts of more than 1.6m yen (pounds 10,000). The prince's family clearly had broken the law.
Within a week, another gratitude scam had been uncovered, involving the Emperor's cousin, Prince Tomohito, who netted 22m yen from a cycle race in another city. Last week, after an investigation by the Imperial Household Agency, the ministry which overseas royal affairs, the matter was brought to a hasty conclusion. Both city councils received cheques recouping their donations.
"Gratitude money above 1m yen is far above the socially acceptable level, even if the money was offered to the imperial families," the agency said. "The public does not condone such practices." The agency's director general declared: "The families accepted the money as donations. They must not have been aware of proper procedures required by the law."
Plenty of questions remain unanswered. Could members of the imperial household have been unaware of an article of the constitution? And, as servant, treasurer and social secretary to the princes, was the agency as ignorant of the donations as it suggested?
Even more interesting is the light the affair casts on the status of the imperial family. Direct criticism of the imperial institution is still taboo in Japan, partly for fear of ultra-nationalists who threaten radical journalists. But if the media seldom makes a target of royalty, it does not display exaggerated respect either, as the recent scandal showed. The story broke in the liberal Asahi Shimbun, but even the conservative Yomiuri was outspoken in its criticism, urging an open debate and expressing incredulity at the Imperial Household Agency's explanation.
The most poignant aspect of the affair is the light it casts on imperial finances. Outside the Emperor's immediate family, an imperial prince receives an annual stipend of 27.1m yen (pounds 170,000) a year, and a princess half of that. All other income, from books and speeches for instance, is taxed, as are inheritances. When Prince Takamatsu died, his widow was forced to give the nation most of his estate, to keep a small part of it. The mayor of Otsu told a sad story about this. "On one occasion, when I'd given the money to one of the officers, the princess smiled at me. 'I don't have any voting rights', she told me, 'but I still have to pay inheritance tax'."
Prince Tomohito, the other race sponsor, suffers from cancer and recently came out of hospital. Unlike a commoner, he receives no social security.
In medieval Japan, some emperors were reduced to such poverty that one was forced to sell his autograph to buy food. Things are not that bad yet, but the most surprising thing about the cycle-race scandal is that Prince Takamatsu and Prince Tomohito genuinely seem to have needed the money.Reuse content